This morning, I listened to John Coltrane‘s The Avant-Garde for the first time in many years. Recorded in 1960, while he was signed to Atlantic, but not released until 1966, long after he’d moved to Impulse!, the album features only five tracks, three of which are by Ornette Coleman. It’s co-credited to Don Cherry, who was Ornette’s partner/foil at the time, and also features two other members of the Coleman quartet: drummer Ed Blackwell, who plays on the whole disc, and bassist Charlie Haden, who only plays on two tracks. Percy Heath plays on the other three.
The album is an interesting synthesis of approaches. On the disc-opening “Cherryco” and the third track, “The Blessing,” Cherry, Haden and Blackwell are a unit, and Coltrane is the guest. On the three tracks with Percy Heath, the balance of power shifts somewhat in Coltrane’s direction, as Heath is a conventionally swinging bassist who finds the root of Coleman’s compositions (and Thelonious Monk‘s “Bemsha Swing,” which closes the disc) and renders them as heavy blues, with subtlety but little desire to break the bounds of jazz tradition. He brings the absent Coleman in, rather than letting the saxophonist’s compositions take him out; it’s the difference between Ornette’s “freedom from” and jazz’s always implied “freedom to.”
To my ear, “Bemsha Swing” is the heart of the record, and a perfect complement to the four Ornette and inspired-by-Ornette pieces that precede it. Throughout the album, Coltrane is willing to be Cherry’s equal, never swamping the trumpeter under waves of notes (as he surely could have done) or blasting him flat with raw power. Coltrane in 1960 was still very much under the sway of Prestige jam-session rules, wherein solo statements were made in a form as strictly organized as a university debate. You don’t play over the other man, you let him say his piece and then you say yours, or the two of you blow through the melody. It’s not a fight, it’s an attempt to spontaneously create a piece of music that sounds formally organized. Ornette’s band was toying with these rules, subtly subverting them, and that wasn’t Coltrane’s thing, not yet, but he wanted to dip a toe in nevertheless. And after doing so (occasionally at great length; the group’s version of “Focus On Sanity” passes the 12-minute mark), he brings the band around to his way of thinking with a version of “Bemsha Swing,” a tune he’d probably played dozens of times with Monk himself, three years earlier. I’ve done your thing, he seems to say, now you do this thing with me. And Cherry and Blackwell join in quite happily as Coltrane and Heath lurch and swing through a piece by the previous decade’s (and indeed the decade before that, too) impenetrable avant-garde genius.